Shopping for my wedding dress wasn’t the stuff of movies. Rummaging through rails of sometimes slightly mucky gowns, fighting my way through unwanted sparkles and lace, squeezing into sample sizes, and wondering when I was going to find ‘the one’ (and when someone was going to give me a glass of champagne), I never did have a hallelujah moment. In the end, I just picked one that didn’t make me feel totally hideous. Its pockets clinched the deal.
I instructed the bridal shop to take off the tacky diamanté waistband, nip it in at the waist, and hoped for the best. It was a £1,422 gamble (slightly over the national average of £1,385) that I still wasn’t sure about at the final fitting, days before my wedding. But, on my big day itself, having got ready with my two best friends in my own home, had my hair and make-up done by my local hairdresser-cum-therapist and pumped up with a few early-morning glasses of prosecco, I felt amazing. I loved how the dress skimmed my waist, how the shape felt chic and how the silk skirt hung. My husband-to-be had tears in his eyes when I finally sashayed my way down the aisle.
I partied hard in that dress, had it dry cleaned, and then... it sat in my wardrobe for four years. Because although it turned out to be the item I have most loved wearing, really, what else can you do with a white silk gown? My husband has worn his custom-made wedding suit to every single wedding since, as well as christenings and work meetings: that suit, despite costing more than my dress, has evened out at about 20p per wear. My wedding outfit, however, was proving to be an eye-wateringly expensive one-off. Was it finally time to say goodbye?
It’s a conundrum many of us will face. With more than 250,000 weddings per year in the UK, there are a lot of (mostly) white dresses floating about. Lots of my friends have sold theirs, which is eminently sensible; according to the resale site sellmyweddingdress.co.uk, you can make back up to 30% of a designer dress. But I couldn’t quite part with mine, although with every year that passed, I knew the resale value was dropping; on eBay recently, I saw someone selling a similar style for a mere £250.
My wedding outfit was proving to be an eye-wateringly expensive one-off. Was it finally time to say goodbye?
Then, my brother announced that he was going to get married on the same bank holiday weekend as I had, even asking me to do a reading. It spurred me into action: I needed a special dress for his big day. In previous years I would have headed for the shops, but this time around I felt reluctant to splash out on something new. I was increasingly aware, as we all are, of the cost of fast fashion. As the global campaign group Fashion Revolution has highlighted, global textile production emits 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually. Meanwhile Livia Firth, the environmental fashion campaigner, says that every time we shop, we need to think if we’re going to wear something 30 times.
Firth herself is expert at upcycling outfits for posh functions: she uses every red- carpet appearance to reuse an old outfit or showcase an eco-fabric. Looking at the Henrietta Ludgate dress that she first wore to Kensington Palace in 2013, and later to a Met Gala, I saw that it wasn’t a world away from the shape of my wedding dress... Could I upcycle mine? Further inspiration came when my friend Bee showed me pictures of her wedding day skirt, a bright yellow pleated item with pockets (of course), for her Cornish wedding last year. She’d had it designed and made by Tessa Cox Birch, former head of design of fashion fabrics at Liberty Fabrics, who ran the print department at Diane von Furstenberg in New York.
Today, Cox Birch has her own dress-making business, creating effortlessly cool, unique bridesmaid dresses in her signature prints. She also does bespoke work – usually creating bridal gowns – but she’s encouraging when I email to suggest we upcycle an old dress of mine. I cycle over to her studio in Hackney, the dress stuffed into my toddler’s bike seat. Tall and willowy, and dressed in a oral vintage printed jumpsuit, Isabel Marant jumper and Chuck Taylor high-tops, Cox Birch is instantly enthused by my idea of restyling my wedding dress. ‘I need to do the same for mine,’ she says.
When I go to pick it up after it is reworked, I feel unbelievable excitement... I am truly emotional to see how it has been transformed.
As she unfurls my dress, her brain starts whirring. While I stress the importance of not turning up to my brother’s wedding looking like a bride (what a way to cause a family fight), I’m confident I’m in the right hands. ‘We’re going to cover this in colour,’ she assures me. ‘You’d never know that it was once white.' She starts to reel off a load of ideas, from splatter-painting the fabric (the effect Alexander McQueen famously created with robots on the catwalk) to appliquéing silk flowers. But I’m really drawn to her floral prints, so we decide to use my peony wedding bouquet as inspiration for a custom-made print. We also discuss the shape: I want to keep the look of the dress’s top half, but shorten the skirt to a mid-length. Cox Birch sends my updated measurements (it needs a little ahem, letting out post-baby) to a creative pattern cutter.
No doubt about it, the work that goes into restyling my dress is as great as making a new one from scratch. At £750, the cost of this project is more than double the price of an off-the-peg dress by Cox Birch, and considerably more than a new high street wedding-guest outfit would have been. But the memories attached to it are priceless to me, and when I go to pick it up after it is reworked, I feel unbelievable excitement. In sharp contrast to when I collected my dress the first time around, just before my wedding, I am truly emotional to see how it has been transformed.
On the morning of my brother’s wedding day, I slip on my old-but-new dress. ‘You look wonderful, Mummy,’ my two-year-old says, sweetly parroting what people have been saying to her in her flower-girl get-up. And I feel it. All the physical echoes of my dress are still there: the modest neck line, the belted waist, the pockets. But what makes it so special is the memories that are sewn in, too: of seeing my then-boyfriend through a crowded church for the first time; of standing up to make my bridal speech in front of my family and friends; of my ridiculous, awkward, but funny fist dance. Now it’s been reworked, I can’t wait to layer more memories on top, with every new outing it gets.
Dresses from £360; bespoke work, price on application; marryby.com